As expected, the European parliament yesterday confirmed Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker to be the new head of the European Commission (effectively, prime minister of the European Union). He will take office in November, replacing incumbent José Manuel Barroso.
Juncker was nominated for the job last month by the EU’s heads of government – not unanimously, as is usually the case, but by a vote of 26 to two, after Britain’s David Cameron insisted on pressing his objections. He and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán were the only dissenters.
The vote by European MPs, however, was much less overwhelming. Juncker received 422 votes in the 751-seat parliament; 250 voted against, 47 registered abstentions while the remaining 32 either were not present or failed to cast valid votes.
Unfortunately, voting is by secret ballot (another sign that the European parliament still has some way to go before looking like a democratically accountable institution), so we can’t say for sure how different groups voted. But the 422 that voted for Juncker is suspiciously close to the 412 that represents the total of the two largest political groups, the European People’s Party (centre-right) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (centre-left).
Although no doubt there were a few defectors from those two groups (the 12 MPs from Orbán’s Fidesz party would be likely candidates), it looks as if Juncker received very little support from outside them. Prior discussions indicated that he would also have some support within the liberal/centrist group ALDE (67 seats) and the Greens (50 seats); it’s also likely that those groups would be strongly represented among the 79 abstentions and non-voters.
So Juncker will come to office, like his predecessor Barroso, with the support of the informal coalition of the two big parties that has controlled the parliament for most of its lifetime, but without much enthusiasm from them and with precious little support elsewhere.
That need not be fatal to his chances of delivering the sort of reform that the EU needs, but it certainly looks like a handicap. And although the parliamentary majority was to some extent instrumental in his selection, it’s still some distance short of a proper system of responsible government.
Juncker himself promises “to strengthen democratic legitimacy on the basis of the Community method” and says he wants “to have a political dialogue” with the parliament, “not a technocratic one.” They’re worthy aims, but it’s not clear that Juncker is the right person to be trying to carry them out.